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Relationship Between Big Data and Big Pharma Mutually Beneficial, Says Roche CEO

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Big Data

One of the main issues facing pharmaceutical companies - in regards to data analysis - is that much of the world’s healthcare data is still primarily stored in hard-copy form.

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October 8, 2015 | by Sarah Massey

According to Roche’s CEO, Severin Schwan, Big Pharma should strive to form digital partnerships in order to harness the potential of Big Data. In the case of technology companies, he believes that they would benefit from a pharmaceutical company partner, by having access to their expertise and getting leg-up in the healthcare industry.

It has been clear in recent years that the leading technology companies – like Google, SAP, and IBM – have a definite interest in breaking into the healthcare sector. In an interview with Japan’s Nikkei news, Schwan explained how these tech giants have focused on developing algorithms and other tools, in order to analyze large data sets.

Schwan elaborated, “But what they miss is the medical knowledge, the understanding of biology. They can't ask the right questions. They can program, but they don't know what to program.”

This is why the CEO asserts that the pharmaceutical industry needs data, but data analysis companies also need pharmaceutical developers. With this in mind, Roche has established a partnership with a DNA sequencing and diagnostics company – Foundation Medicine – with the aim of using their expertise at interpreting genetic data, to drive R&D at Roche.

Schwan describes Foundation Medicine as, “really an information company.” He goes on to comment on this type of partnership by saying, “We will probably see more of that in the future.”



In order to make meaningful use of the healthcare data available, the partnering companies still have a few hurdles to pass. One of the main issues is that much of the world’s healthcare data is still primarily stored in hard-copy form. According to Schwan, once the outcomes of treatment for these patients can be better tracked and analyzed, this will start to be “very important” for decisions made at the clinical level.

Treatment guidelines are predicted to be a very important component in patient care, once data can be fully harnessed. This is attributed to the fact that new treatment guidelines can be better substantiated due to the availability of data, and because new treatments are getting steadily more complicated.

“[I]t is almost impossible for a physician to digest everything,” said Schwan. “If you have seen what is going on in cancer, no brain can digest everything at the same time. Over time we will see more electronic help for the doctor to make treatment decisions.”

Roche joins a whole host of other pharmaceutical developers who have already started partnerships with data companies. Allergan recently announced their new partnership with Humana, which aims to collect treatment data from Alzheimer’s disease patients, as well as their caregivers.

Sanofi and Google Life Sciences recently partnered in an effort to determine the current state of diabetes care, and develop new therapies to improve disease management in the future. In their interview, Nikkei news service asked Schwan: Given that healthcare's future will depend on digital, is Google a competitor – or a potential partner? Schwan answered, “I don’t know yet. We’ll see how things go.”

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